News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 November 2016: Apocalypse Now

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that’s caught our attention in the last week, from the fate of a beloved Birmingham venue to grim visions of the future.

First, Martyn Cornell has a thought-provoking post on the morality of drinking bottles of beer that cost 89p:

Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins… Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

(The less squeamish among you will read that post and rightly think that if Martyn rates Banks’s bottled bitter so highly, it’s probably worth checking out, especially at that price.)


The exterior of the Craven Arms.

We visited The Craven Arms in Birmingham for the first time this summer and enjoyed its distinctive mash-up of craft beer culture and traditional pub. Local drinkers are now up in arms over the news that the people who gave it this reputation, Sharon and Chris Sherratt, are leaving, after some kind of dispute with the pub’s owners, Black Country Ales. In his take on the situation Stuart Harrison sums up the appeal of the pub…

[It] was a truly democratic space. As well as a fine selection of beers from a wide range of craft breweries, it also had a decent selection of traditional ales, as well as (shock horror!) Carling and Guinness. This meant that it was a great spot to take your dad, your tight uncle who won’t spend more than £3 on a pint, or your lager loving mates, without fear of alienating them. There were even cobs behind the bar, which is sadly a dying trend round these parts.

…while Glenn Johnson at My World of Beer is, in effect, calling for a boycott:

So all you beer lovers out there looking for places to drink in Birmingham please strike this from your list.  It’s a hard climb up Gough Street to this pub and you really should save yourself all that effort and avoid it.  If you like bland, boring beer than it might be the place for you because it is still a fabulous building, but I’m sure BCA will do their worst with it. 

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Pause For Field Work

Detail from a 1930s Whitbread advert: a couple in exotic climes drinking pale ale.

We’re off to London for the next week or so where we’ll be undertaking some more research and, for the first time in a while, attending the Great British Beer Festival.

The research is final phase stuff for The Big Project and will take us to pubs in such glamorous locations as Lewisham and Bishop’s Stortford, as well as back for another bout at the London Metropolitan Archives and the RIBA library, among others.

We’ve got some meetings to attend and duties to dispense at GBBF but will be knocking about having a few beers on Tuesday afternoon if anyone wants to come and say hello, or just point and laugh from a safe distance. We’ll broadcast where we’re cowering sitting standing on Twitter when we’ve found a spot. We haven’t worked out our game plan yet — nothing but milds, maybe? Or all beers from The North? We’re such lightweights we have to find a way of thinning out the field.

In the meantime, if you want something to read…

Detail from the cover of BEER magazine.

  1. We have a big feature article in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine on the subject of the history and meaning of theme pubs. Members will have a copy but non-members might consider popping along to their local CAMRA-friendly real ale pub and seeing if they have a copy knocking about.
HEADLINE: 'Ale festival looks set to get bigger'.
What’s Brewing, October 1975.

2. Last year we wrote another big feature for BEER marking the 40th anniversary of the first modern beer festival, the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition. We’ve now made that available here on the blog — enjoy!

A brain.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons (edited).

3. And don’t miss our most recent piece for All About Beer which argues that beer geeks are nothing new.

4. We won’t be doing our usual Saturday morning news round-up this week and possibly not the next either but Stan’s Hieronymus’s Monday link-fests are great, and Jordan has started doing history-focused ‘posts of the week’ on (we gather) Fridays.

QUICK ONE: Too Many Breweries: Bureaucracy Edition

We used to have a few breweries making lots of beer; now we have lots of breweries each making a small amount. That’s great news for consumers but a nightmare for the taxman.

I’ve long been fascinated by this because, in a past life, I had dealings with the section of HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) that manages duty returns on alcohol. Back then, c.2003, it was quite possible for them to carry out a hands-on assessment of something like 98% of all beer production by visiting a handful of large brewing plants.

As the number of breweries has grown (we’re at about 1,500 now, from around 400 in 2002) I’ve often found myself wondering whether they bother inspecting at all, especially given that small brewers pay relatively less tax anyway thanks to progressive beer duty (PBD).

My assumption has been that microbreweries operate more-or-less on an honesty box system but I never got round to investigating with brewers, firing off FOI requests, and so on.

Now, as part of a wider point about fair play, this fascinating, tax-geek friendly blogpost from Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery has gone some way to answering my question:

Then, all of a sudden, the banking crisis and subsequent deficit hit hard. One day we decided to throw a whole tank full of beer away. I tried to contact the officer in HMRC and was told he had been moved out of the beer duty department and in fact HMRC wasn’t chasing the likes of us anyway. Funding to the officers was slashed and there was no one left to help us. We were almost told that we could do what we liked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave was right and that some people had decided to take advantage of that situation. Fortunately for the Government this will probably be, to a certain extent, self-policing — that is to say, brewers will dob each other in.

Main image: HMRC by Steven Vacher from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

The Month That Was: December 2015

It’s a funny month, December: all parties, panics and listicles. Still, we managed to turn out a few ‘proper posts’ including a 2,500 worder for #BeeryLongreads.

→ The month kicked off with a discussion of ‘drinkability’ that was followed up by Ed Wray, Stan Hieronymus (‘An Anheuser-Busch campaign back in the day that put the word “drinkability” on billboards did not endear the word to those who would protect the world from bland beers’) and Allan P. Maclean (‘London Pride fits the bill precisely, although there are — and have been — others’).

Various covers for 'The Pub Crawler'.

→ Bailey reviewed The Pub Crawler, a 1950s crime novel set in and around the pubs of a fictional northern city.

→ We wondered which British beers we might drink to get an idea of why certain American brews (e.g. Heady Topper) get people so excited.

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A Lost Decade of Beer Writing?

An article published this week by The Atlantic rings an alarm over the impermanence of online-only content.

In ‘Raiders of the Lost Web’ Adrienne LaFrance uses as a case study an early venture in turning a piece of narrative journalism into a multimedia ‘web experience’:

[Kevin] Vaughan spent the better part of a year reporting the story. And in that time, a team of web designers, photographers, videographers, and engineers worked with him to build a web experience around the series—the first time the [Rocky Mountain News] had built something digital of this scope… It was worth the effort… In 2008, Vaughan was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the series. The next year, the Rocky folded. And in the months that followed, the website slowly broke apart. One day, without warning, “The Crossing” evaporated from the Internet.

In the (less important) world of beer much of value has also been lost, in part or in full, or lingers on only in fragile form via the Wayback Machine web archiving project.

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